Jazz: Leading from the back

The Jeff Ballard Trio will perform at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival.

The Jeff Ballard Trio (photo credit: ANDREA BOCCALINI)
The Jeff Ballard Trio
(photo credit: ANDREA BOCCALINI)
Jeff Ballard is upholding a family tradition, which he will unfurl before our very eyes and ears.
The 53-year-old France-based American drummer is one of the standout artists at this year’s Jerusalem Jazz Festival, which will take place for the second year at the Israel Museum, December 14 to 16. Ballard, who has performed here on several occasions, is coming with his trio of guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Chris Cheek.
Ballard says he received his first timekeeping pointers from his father.
“The beginning of it all was that my dad was dabbling in drums when he was in the army but not really professionally. I kind of wanted to be like him too, and I loved listening to the records he played, which were mostly Count Basie and [vibraphonist and band leader] Terry Gibbs, with Mel Lewis on drums. I just freaked on it,” he recounts.
Ballard Sr. also helped his budding jazzman son get into a wide range of rhythms and textures from outside the strict confines of straightahead jazz, as did his peers.
“When I was in high school, I was in a band that played sort of fusiony rock Afro-Cuban stuff,” the drummer recalls. “And my dad also liked music from Brazil, so that was always playing in the house. There was always that appreciation for it and other stuff, all the way from Yemenite music to West Africa to Cuba to Brazil, Peru and Argentina as well. I never got into Indian music, but although it’s not my culture, I really felt a strong connection with music from West Africa – from Senegal, Benin or Ghana. I’m not exactly sure why it appeals to me. Maybe it’s the rhythms, and maybe it’s coming out of Cuba and some of the Afro- Cuban rhythms that I was originally attracted to.”
Ballard says he was also drawn to the mystical subtext to the music.
“Most of that sacred music is all coming out of Benin and West Africa. I think there is something in that way of playing. I love the fact that there is a sort of breathing, stretching, malleable kind of thing to the rhythms, which I didn’t really hear at first listening to the music of India or Japan,” he says.
Early fascination with big bands notwithstanding, Ballard says today he feels comfortable in a smaller format and is not averse to crossing the boundaries of conventional instrumentation.
“I’m coming to Israel with a trio.
Last year I did a big project, with Kevin Hays on piano, Lionel [Loueke] was on guitar, and [bassist] Reid Anderson was playing computerized music that he developed over the last nine years.
It was all open and free, the way I like it,” he says.
Over the years, Ballard has played with many of the greats of the jazz community, such as stellar guitarists Pat Metheny and Kurt Rosenwinkel, keyboard wizards Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau, and reedman Joshua Redman, as well as a juicy sideman berth with late great singer-keyboardist Ray Charles. He has also participated in scores of recordings, but there are very few CDs out there with Ballard as a leader.
For Ballard, running his own outfit is something of a doubleedged sword.
“I really like being a leader because I get to be the DJ, and I get to call the songs we’re going to play and the way we play. But I’ve got this pressure of having to come up with a finished product. I really just want to play,” he adds with something of a wry chuckle.
Many of the influences Ballard has soaked up over the last threeplus decades will be on show at the Israel Museum, with plenty of groove mixed in betwixt the musical dynamics of West Africa, the Caribbean and South America.
There will also be a nod to some more contemporary, commercial vibes with what will be, no doubt, an intriguing improvised take on a hit or two by California rock group Queens of the Stone Age.
For tickets and more information: www.jerusalemjazzfestival.org.il